Md. county launches study for ag innovation center
FREDERICK, Md. — The question of whether Frederick County needs an agricultural innovation center should be answered within the year.
The county announced this month the hiring of three companies to conduct a feasibility study into the necessity of such a facility, which would help county farmers more easily produce value-added products such as individual meat cuts, charcuterie, salsas, jams and jellies.
The $115,000 study will span three phases. The first will include a consumer survey and a series of focus groups within the county’s farming community. The second will provide a broad business plan, and the third would be a report recommending the best facility to boost economic growth in local agriculture.
The third phase would also include a list of potential sites as well as a more detailed business plan. Such a facility would allow local farmers to capitalize on a growing interest in local food that spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic as consumers flooded local farms.
“I actually think it’s still spiking,” said Katie Stevens, associate director of agriculture business development at the county’s office of economic development. “People want to know where their food comes from. … I think COVID and the current state of the world has only driven that higher.”
The companies conducting the study are HR&A Advisors, an economic development and real-estate consulting firm; ACDS LLC, an agricultural and food system consulting firm based in Friendship, Md.; and Epstein and Sons International Inc., a Chicago engineering and construction firm that will help choose a site for the facility. The study begins this week and should be presented to the county by next May, Stevens said.
An agricultural innovation center would be at least the second such facility under construction in Maryland. Stevens said the county has paid particular attention to the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, which is building a regional agricultural center in St. Mary’s County. Although that facility has many planned features, including cold storage for produce and other foods, meat processing was the project’s primary focus.
The agricultural industry regionally and nationally is struggling with a severe shortage of meat processors, particularly for smaller farms selling meat themselves to consumers or small buyers such as restaurants. In the Delmarva region, wait lists for slaughtering appointments are long, with some planned more than a year in advance. Frederick County, however, will wait to see what the study reveals before committing to specific features in its own agricultural center, Stevens said.
“We think it’s important to understand what consumers want as local products,” she said.
Ultimately, the goal is to keep farms across the county profitable. Last year, the county announced a grant program for county farms looking to upgrade or expand their operations. To date, more than half a million dollars have been distributed to 24 operations, Stevens said, and another half a million in grant awards is planned next month. Those grants have been used for projects that include the installation of new cooling technology in a small greenhouse operation, funding for a walk-in freezer for a local beef operation, and a new kombucha processing facility for a local farm.
“Over the past seven years, I think farmers have diversified their operations more,” Stevens said. “I think there’s huge demand for value-added agriculture. … I think overall farmers are trying new things and trying to keep the next generation on the farm.”